"You remind me of somebody I saw on TV," he told me. "You a child actor or something?"
"Uh ... I'm a stunt double ... for a lot of child actors."
"Oh! That explains it."
We thanked him and got off quickly at the next stop.
We wandered for miles on foot, looking for DOA. Nobody seemed to know where it was. It didn't appear in the phone book.
Twice, we ducked into alleys to avoid cop cars.
I froze in front of an appliance-store window because a television was playing an interview with somebody who looked very familiar—my stepdad, Smelly Gabe. He was talking to Barbara Walters—I mean, as if he were some kind of huge celebrity. She was interviewing him in our apartment, in the middle of a poker game, and there was a young blond lady sitting next to him, patting his hand.
A fake tear glistened on his cheek. He was saying, "Honest, Ms. Walters, if it wasn't for Sugar here, my grief counselor, I'd be a wreck. My stepson took everything I cared about. My wife ... my Camaro ... I—I'm sorry. I have trouble talking about it."
"There you have it, America." Barbara Walters turned to the camera. "A man torn apart. An adolescent boy with serious issues. Let me show you, again, the last known photo of this troubled young fugitive, taken a week ago in Denver."
The screen cut to a grainy shot of me, Annabeth, and Grover standing outside the Colorado diner, talking to Ares.
"Who are the other children in this photo?" Barbara Walters asked dramatically. "Who is the man with them? Is Percy Jackson a delinquent, a terrorist, or perhaps the brainwashed victim of a frightening new cult? When we come back, we chat with a leading child psychologist. Stay tuned, America."
"C'mon," Grover told me. He hauled me away before I could punch a hole in the appliance-store window.
It got dark, and hungry-looking characters started coming out on the streets to play. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a New Yorker. I don't scare easy. But L.A. had a totally different feel from New York. Back home, everything seemed close. It didn't matter how big the city was, you could get anywhere without getting lost. The street pattern and the subway made sense. There was a system to how things worked. A kid could be safe as long as he wasn't stupid.
L.A. wasn't like that. It was spread out, chaotic, hard to move around. It reminded me of Ares. It wasn't enough for L.A. to be big; it had to prove it was big by being loud and strange and difficult to navigate, too. I didn't know how we were ever going to find the entrance to the Underworld by tomorrow, the summer solstice.
We walked past gangbangers, bums, and street hawkers, who looked at us like they were trying to figure if we were worth the trouble of mugging.
As we hurried passed the entrance of an alley, a voice from the darkness said, "Hey, you."
Like an idiot, I stopped.
Before I knew it, we were surrounded. A gang of kids had circled us. Six of them in all—white kids with expensive clothes and mean faces. Like the kids at YancyAcademy: rich brats playing at being bad boys.
Instinctively, I uncapped Riptide.
When the sword appeared out of nowhere, the kids backed off, but their leader was either really stupid or really brave, because he kept coming at me with a switchblade.
I made the mistake of swinging.
The kid yelped. But he must've been one hundred percent mortal, because the blade passed harmlessly right through his chest. He looked down. "What the ..."
I figured I had about three seconds before his shock turned to anger. "Run!" I screamed at Annabeth and Grover.
We pushed two kids out of the way and raced down the street, not knowing where we were going. We turned a sharp corner.
"There!" Annabeth shouted.
Only one store on the block looked open, its windows glaring with neon. The sign above the door said something like CRSTUY'S WATRE BDE ALPACE.
"Crusty's WaterBedPalace?" Grover translated.
It didn't sound like a place I'd ever go except in an emergency, but this definitely qualified.
We burst through the doors, ran behind a water bed, and ducked. A split second later, the gang kids ran past outside.
"I think we lost them," Grover panted.
A voice behind us boomed, "Lost who?"
We all jumped.
Standing behind us was a guy who looked like a raptor in a leisure suit. He was at least seven feet tall, with absolutely no hair. He had gray, leathery skin, thick-lidded eyes, and a cold, reptilian smile. He moved toward us slowly, but I got the feeling he could move fast if he needed to.
His suit might've come from the Lotus Casino. It belonged back in the seventies, big-time. The shirt was silk paisley, unbuttoned halfway down his hairless chest. The lapels on his velvet jacket were as wide as landing strips. The silver chains around his neck—I couldn't even count them.
"I'm Crusty," he said, with a tartar-yellow smile.
I resisted the urge to say, Yes, you are.
"Sorry to barge in," I told him. "We were just, um, browsing."
"You mean hiding from those no-good kids," he grumbled. "They hang around every night. I get a lot of people in here, thanks to them. Say, you want to look at a water bed?"
I was about to say No, thanks, when he put a huge paw on my shoulder and steered me deeper into the showroom.
There was every kind of water bed you could imagine: different kinds of wood, different patterns of sheets; queen-size, king-size, emperor-of-the-universe-size.
"This is my most popular model." Crusty spread his hands proudly over a bed covered with black satin sheets, with built-in Lava Lamps on the headboard. The mattress vibrated, so it looked like oil-flavored Jell-O.
"Million-hand massage," Crusty told us. "Go on, try it out. Shoot, take a nap. I don't care. No business today, any-way.
"Um," I said, "I don't think ..."
"Million-hand massage!" Grover cried, and dove in. "Oh, you guys! This is cool."
"Hmm," Crusty said, stroking his leathery chin. "Almost, almost."
"Almost what?" I asked.
He looked at Annabeth. "Do me a favor and try this one over here, honey. Might fit."
Annabeth said, "But what—"
He patted her reassuringly on the shoulder and led her over to the Safari Deluxe model with teakwood lions carved into the frame and a leopard-patterned comforter. When Annabeth didn't want to lie down, Crusty pushed her.
"Hey!" she protested.
Crusty snapped his fingers. "Ergo!"
Ropes sprang from the sides of the bed, lashing around Annabeth, holding her to the mattress.
Grover tried to get up, but ropes sprang from his black-satin bed, too, and lashed him down.
"N-not c-c-cool!" he yelled, his voice vibrating from the million-hand massage. "N-not c-cool a-at all!"
The giant looked at Annabeth, then turned toward me and grinned. "Almost, darn it."
I tried to step away, but his hand shot out and clamped around the back of my neck. "Whoa, kid. Don't worry. We'll find you one in a sec."
"Let my friends go."
"Oh, sure I will. But I got to make them fit, first."
"What do you mean?"
"All the beds are exactly six feet, see? Your friends are too short. Got to make them fit."
Annabeth and Grover kept struggling.
"Can't stand imperfect measurements," Crusty muttered. "Ergo!"
A new set of ropes leaped out from the top and bottom of the beds, wrapping around Grover and Annabeth's ankles, then around their armpits. The ropes started tightening, pulling my friends from both ends.
"Don't worry," Crusty told me, "These are stretching jobs. Maybe three extra inches on their spines. They might even live. Now why don't we find a bed you like, huh?"
"Percy!" Grover yelled.
My mind was racing. I knew I couldn't take on this giant water-bed salesman alone. He would snap my neck before I ever got my sword out.
"Your real name's not Crusty, is it?" I asked.
"Legally, it's Procrustes," he admitted.
"The Stretcher," I said. I remembered the story: the giant who'd tried to kill Theseus with excess hospitality on his way to Athens.
"Yeah," the salesman said. "But who can pronounce Procrustes? Bad for business. Now 'Crusty,' anybody can say that."
"You're right. It's got a good ring to it."
His eyes lit up. "You think so?"
"Oh, absolutely," I said. "And the workmanship on these beds? Fabulous!"
He grinned hugely, but his fingers didn't loosen on my neck. "I tell my customers that. Every time. Nobody bothers to look at the workmanship. How many built-in Lava Lamp headboards have you seen?"
"Not too many."
"Percy!" Annabeth yelled. "What are you doing?"
"Don't mind her," I told Procrustes. "She's impossible."
The giant laughed. "All my customers are. Never six feet exactly. So inconsiderate. And then they complain about the fitting."
"What do you do if they're longer than six feet?"
"Oh, that happens all the time. It's a simple fix."
He let go of my neck, but before I could react, he reached behind a nearby sales desk and brought out a huge double-bladed brass axe. He said, "I just center the subject as best I can and lop off whatever hangs over on either end."
"Ah," I said, swallowing hard. "Sensible."
"I'm so glad to come across an intelligent customer!"
The ropes were really stretching my friends now. Annabeth was turning pale. Grover made gurgling sounds, like a strangled goose.
"So, Crusty ..." I said, trying to keep my voice light. I glanced at the sales tag on the valentine-shaped Honeymoon Special. "Does this one really have dynamic stabilizers to stop wave motion?"
"Absolutely. Try it out."
"Yeah, maybe I will. But would it work even for a big guy like you? No waves at all?"
He sat down eagerly on the bed, patted the mattress. "No waves. See?"
I snapped my fingers. "Ergo."
Ropes lashed around Crusty and flattened him against the mattress.
"Hey!" he yelled.
"Center him just right," I said.
The ropes readjusted themselves at my command. Crusty's whole head stuck out the top. His feet stuck out the bottom.
"No!" he said. "Wait! This is just a demo."
I uncapped Riptide. "A few simple adjustments ..."
I had no qualms about what I was about to do. If Crusty were human, I couldn't hurt him anyway. If he was a monster, he deserved to turn into dust for a while.
"You drive a hard bargain," he told me. "I'll give you thirty percent off on selected floor models.'"
"I think I'll start with the top." I raised my sword.
"No money down! No interest for six months!"
I swung the sword. Crusty stopped making offers.
I cut the ropes on the other beds. Annabeth and Grover got to their feet, groaning and wincing and cursing me a lot.
"You look taller," I said.
"Very funny," Annabeth said. "Be faster next time."